Memories of Gerda Bailey and her Omaha restaurant are as sweet as her Black Forest cake, as warm as her piping-hot schnitzel and as persistent as her loyal clientele.
“We get Facebook messages and run into people around town who say how much they loved her and how much they miss her and the restaurant,” she said.
Reefe is inevitably touched: “I miss my mom, too,” she said.
She said she knew she had to do something, not only to honor Gerda’s decades-long legacy but also to give back to the community and fill the large hole in her own heart.
She figured out a way to bring back Gerda’s beloved food, made from her time-tested recipes. It’s now available again in periodic pop-ups that give Omahans a taste of the past while not requiring a full-time commitment from Reefe, who works at a large Omaha company.
While holding down that job, Reefe operated Gerda’s for a year after Bailey died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in 2018.
Before she passed, Bailey said she hoped the business could be sold intact. When no buyer emerged — and facing expensive improvements — the family decided to close the restaurant in June 2019.
Gerda had become something of an Omaha legend over the years. Customers raved about her breakfast pastries and doughnuts, her sauerbraten, her cakes. They became acquainted with her family, including Reefe and her brothers.
And they witnessed her kindness and generosity. She was known to offer Thanksgiving meals to people in need or without family.
She also loved to share her language and heritage as a native of Augsburg, Germany.
Jean Hellwege, a retired Lincoln teacher, said she met Gerda through her son, who was a German major at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“He would sometimes go to Gerda’s and study there, and when she had a minute, he would pick her brain,” Hellwege said. “She was such an encouraging person. She gave him several of the books she had that were written in German.”
When he graduated from UNO, his party was at the restaurant, Hellwege said.
And a local German teacher, for example, remembers taking her classes to Gerda’s for Oktoberfest.
“The atmosphere, the delicious food and Gerda’s hospitality gave real meaning to the word ‘gemutlichkeit,’ and a memory we will long cherish,” the teacher wrote on a funeral home website when Gerda died. “It was a blessing to have her in our midst.”
Reefe said she hopes to re-create her mom’s flair for gemutlichkeit — a feeling of warmth, friendliness and good cheer — in the pop-ups. She had the first one at Archetype Coffee Co. before the pandemic and then took a break until things opened up again. It was a big success.
She had the second on Saturday night at the Sons of Italy Hall, where she hopes to have future events as well. It sold out more than a week beforehand.
For $18, diners got goulash over spatzle with a side of potato salad and a hard roll. Apple strudel, Black Forest and German chocolate cakes were a little extra.
She said the pop-up dishes taste like Gerda made them.
“I have the recipes (but) just like most cooks, she went on how it looked, how it felt and how it tasted. You could write it down but she would be the only one who could make it turn out,” Reefe said.
She said she learned Gerda’s secrets by watching her cook and eating the dishes most every night for dinner. She spent lots of time at the restaurant after school when she was young and eventually worked there, washing dishes, folding cake boxes and even delivering wedding cakes when she was older. One of her brothers, Karl, also worked with his mom for many years. He died last August.
Reefe’s husband, kids and other family members help at the pop-ups. They plan to offer jaegerschnitzel, pan-fried chicken and other Gerda’s favorites at future events, though no dates have been announced yet.
“We wanted to bring (Gerda’s) back in a way that was not going to be overwhelming for the family,” she said.
For information on the pop-ups, visit facebook.com/Gerdas-German-Restaurant-and-Bakery.
She’s happy with how it’s going so far.
“We want it to represent how you would feel when you went to Gerda’s,” she said. “This is a labor of love. We’re doing this for Gerda’s fans because we miss her as much as they do. That is what this is all about.”